About Me

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I lead workshops at the British Library, on literature, language, art, history, and the culture of the book. Author of Discovering Words, Discovering Words in the Kitchen, Evolving English Explored, Team Talk - sporting words & their origins, Trench Talk - the Language of the First World War (with Peter Doyle); How to Cure the Plague; The Finishing Touch. As an artist I work in performance, public engagement, and intervention using drawing, curating, text, changing things and embroidery.

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Wednesday, 4 December 2013

A Forgetting to Breathe


In one of my workshops at the British Library I begin by asking students how many stars they would give the English language. Uusally it averages out at four; by the end of the workshop I have worried and perplexed them into lowering their assessment to two or three. Yet we know the language is capable of incidentally producing phrases and sentences of staggering beauty. ‘Elbow’ is reckoned by many to be the most beautiful word in the language, yet it refers to a part of the body which seldom makes viewers swoon; why ‘elbow’ rather than ‘eyebrow’, which for centuries was so important a feature of the face that its placing drove women to shave theirs off and replace them with false ones?

One of my favourite sentences in the language comes near the end of Heming and Condell’s preface to the first folio of Shakespeare’s plays (1623). After the wonderful bombast with which they castigate previous publications of the plays – ‘stolen and surreptitious copies, maimed and deformed by the frauds and stealths of injurious imposters’ – they include in their text surely one of the most successful pieces of advice ever: Read him therefore, and again, and again. This begins with a  combination of sounds in the first three words demanding a steady pace, followed by the forced break of the comma, and then another strongly rhythmic and again slow phrase, the divided repetition of the nasal sound of ‘again’ sounding like a bell inside the head. It sets the reader up for the wonderfully embracing sentiments of the end of the preface, which honour Heming and Condell’s fellow writers introducing Shakespeare, the playwright himself, his readers, and readers they might introduce to his work. But ‘read him therefore, and again, and again’ stays in the mind, like the memory of something we know to be right.

Yesterday I came across something very sad but very beautifully written, the narrative of the death of a young woman from a drug overdose in 1787. Dr Priest  is writing to his colleague Dr Hamilton from Ipswich; he begins by stating that he was sent for to oversee the case of a young woman. ‘Her name, as I am told, was Lydia Spratt’. I have always felt that the genius of the iambic rhythm is that it observes and reflects the rhythm of much spoken English; this sentence, ‘her name …’, is a great example of this. It could be early seventeenth-century dramatic verse.

Lydia Spratt was ‘the servant girl of a farmer’. Dr Priest states ‘the only information which I received, was, that they could not wake her’, and it soon transpires that she has taken an overdose of laudanum, which she was accustomed to take for a stomach complaint. He gives her ipecacuanha ‘without the least effect’, and manages to get her to swallow fluids without any apparent muscular motion. He bleeds her, but the blood flows slowly, and is ‘very black’. He gets some vinegar and brandy into her, and has her body rubbed with this, but to no avail. In desparation she is taken outside and laid on a cask, which is rolled about, and then sat in a chair. But she does not regain consciousness, and dies an hour later. ‘Her breathing became more and more laborious; at the end of every expiration, there seemed to be total inactivity of the lungs for some moments, and the succeeding inspiration was long. I should call her death, a forgetting to breathe’.

This last sentence, though it does not have that iambic rhythm, has an expressive pace. Though it is possible to pronounce the first clause swiftly, the second clause demands to be spoken slowly, and seems to expire at the end of the sentence –  the word ‘breathe’ is almost onomatopoeic. And the break in the middle reflects the ‘total inactivity’, the forgetting.

I had remembered this sentence as ‘Her death was, she forgot to breathe’, but the actuality is so much less glib, and so much better. We imagine the doctor sitting thinking about the case of poor Lydia Spratt, wondering how to assess this death, in which his observation meets his medical knowledge of what he knows to be a reflex action, and how these meet the potential of the language to express the problem. The sentence is about how we try to reconcile what we know with what we see, and how we fail.